Lee Students Excavate 12,000-Year-Old Site

Monday, September 5, 2016

Working in layers between 6,000 and 12,000 B.C., nine Lee University archaeology students participated in two summer field schools excavating at the Eagle Rock Shelter on the Gunnison River near Delta, Co. 

Under a contract with the Bureau of Land Management and under direction of professional archaeologist and Lee alumnus, Dr. Dudley Gardner, Eagle Rock Shelter is the oldest continually inhabited shelter in North America. The work at the site is now into its ninth year, while Lee has been involved for the past six years. 

“There is no other excavation in the United States where our students could work that would be more exciting and valuable than Eagle Rock Shelter,” said Dr.
Murl Dirksen, a professor of anthropology and sociology and faculty supervisor of the students. “Findings from this excavation will require a rewrite of history of North American settlement.”

According to Dr. Dirksen, humans entered the North American continent from two possible directions, across the Bering Strait ice bridge or by way of the Pacific Island chain. Common interpretation of the settlement of the western part of the United States is that early peoples were large game hunters that came down from the north pursuing and killing woolly mammoths and bison.  While archaeologists have uncovered a significant number of mammoth kill sites with large stone tools called Clovis points, that is only part of the pre-history explanation. 

The Eagle Rock Shelter is suggesting a different scenario. A newly evolving picture is that around 12,000 B.C. groups came from the Pacific coast in small family groups of semi-nomadic foragers. Moving from site to site they collected wild grasses, like quinoa grain, and later developed maize cultivation, fished with spears and nets, and began to weave baskets and ropes from yucca. 

It is within this natural context of Eagle Rock that Lee archaeology students are allowed to develop their excavation skills. The thousands of years of stratified occupation are seamlessly documented by the numerous C-14 dates from charred materials taken from over 65 fire hearths. 

Lee students are involved in the total excavation process: setup of the excavation record, digging the site, screening for material, recording the artifacts, sketching all features, and writing the excavation report. 

Students also traveled to the Mesa Verde and local sites to gain a greater understanding of the geography and pre-history of the region. 

“There is no greater learning experience than being on a world-class archaeological site under the direction of experts,” said Dr. Dirksen.

For more information about Eagle Rock Shelter, visit https://www.cpr.org/

For more information on archaeology and anthropology at Lee, contact Dr. Richard Jones at rjones@leeuniversity.edu or Dr. Dirksen at mdirksen@leeuniversity.edu.

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